It took a good half hour for my ears to acclimate to the indecipherable accents and rapid-fire bursts of convict slang in David Mackenzie’s harrowing new prison drama Starred Up. But it’s a case where patience pays off, thanks to a ferociously intense performance from Jack O’Connell. The actor, from the U.K. TV series Skins, plays Eric Love, an ironically named 19-year-old powder keg with the psychotic swagger of a crazed rottweiler. The movie’s title refers to juvenile offenders who are so dangerous that they’re moved up to adult incarceration. And as the film opens, we see Eric being processed, strip-searched, and then led into the high-risk bowels of his new hell. Mackenzie (Young Adam) shot the movie in a Belfast prison, a place so authentically bleak there might as well be a sign over the entrance that reads ”Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Eric’s no stranger to life behind bars. His mother died when he was just a kid, and his father (Ben Mendelsohn) has been an inmate for most of his life in the facility Eric now calls home. The rotten apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. Needless to say, the family reunion isn’t all finger-painting and hugs. Mendelsohn, an Australian actor who’s delivered a run of excellent supporting turns in Killing Them Softly, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Animal Kingdom, is riveting as a career thug beyond rehabilitation. You can see the torment etched on his face when he can’t help his son out of a scrape and the betrayal he feels when Eric starts to form alliances that don’t include him.
To be honest, though, Eric doesn’t need much of anyone’s help. He already seems to know all the tricks of prison life: how to defend himself with his bruised knuckles, how to fashion a shiv out of a disposable razor and toothbrush, and how to oil down his body to make himself harder for the guards to restrain. After dishing out a string of brutal beatdowns on his cell block, Eric is enrolled in a therapy group run by Homeland’s Rupert Friend. And it’s here that the film feels a bit too familiar and superficial. It could have burrowed deeper into Eric’s past and offered more layers to his rage. Still, O’Connell gives the movie everything he’s got. He’s explosive and feral, and you can see why Angelina Jolie picked him to play the lead in her upcoming film Unbroken. Like Eric Bana’s menacingly raw breakout in 2000’s Chopper or Tom Hardy’s in 2008’s Bronson, O’Connell bristles with terrifying hair-trigger unpredictability. Watching him, you feel like you’re witnessing the arrival of a new movie star. (Also on iTunes and VOD) B